We’re celebrating Helen Keller month. In many countries of the world, Helen Keller is the most famous person with deafblindness. With a unique and complex disability and amazing accomplishments, many filmmakers found inspiration in her story.
Representation matters on the big screen. The visibility it provides to communities decides whether they exist for the world or not. Representation is powerful.
When films like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians hit the big screens it created a tsunami online of people saying, “I finally feel seen.” Black Panther’s all black and Crazy Rich Asian’s all Asian cast screamed representation.
So when a short film titled ‘Feeling Through’ was nominated for the Oscars in the short film category, all eyes turned to the deafblind community all around the world. For the first time after a long time, the community got their shot at representation
on the big screen. Though this film has not been the only one to have a story of a person with deafblindness, it is the first one to have a person with deafblindness (Robert Tarango) acting in it.
People with deafblindness in India had their moment in the spotlight when Sanjay Leela Bhansali directed the movie ‘Black‘(2005) – a classic. It was an adaptation of Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life which Bhansali co-wrote. Amitabh Bachchan played the role of Debraj – the headstrong teacher and Rani Mukherjee played the role of Michele- a person with deafblindness.
The first word Michele learns in the movie is Water. When she signs the word Water it meant that Michele understood what it was and knows how to ask for it. It was at that moment in the movie that her journey towards education began. Michele addresses her teacher as the light that would lighten her world. The movie highlighted the struggles a child with deafblindness goes through. From being misunderstood as a nuisance to the trials of receiving a formal education. The movie shows the journey of the teacher-student duo and proves that deafblindness is not insurmountable.
It has been 16 years since Black. It has been 16 years since a story of a person with deafblindness was shown on the big screen. It is high time that they are represented on it again.
Feeling Through is a short film released in 2019 written and directed by Doug Roland based on his chance encounter with a person with deafblindness. A short interaction between Tereek played by Steven Prescod and Artie played by Robert Tarango at a bus stand leaves a powerful impact. The film is authentic in its portrayal. It has Robert Tarango, a person with deafblindness playing the role of Artie- what more can one want?
Tereek saw Artie standing at the bus stand late in the night with a sign that read, ‘I am Deaf and Blind. Tap me if you can help me to cross the street.’ Tereek communicates with Artie through haptic communication that is communication through touch. The short film takes you through a journey of Tereek figuring out how to communicate with Artie while being sensitized along with it. He makes sure that Artie is safe on the bus and hopes that he reaches his destination safely.
In the short film when Tereek and Artie are sitting on the bench waiting for the bus to come, Artie asks Tereek for some water. Tereek does not have any water on him so Artie asks if there is any convenience store where he could buy some as he is really thirsty. Tereek understands that he would have to guide him to the store and back and by that time Artie would miss his bus, so he writes on his palm ‘Can it wait?’ The film captions its interactions with Artie, so it feels as if the audience is interacting with him and are one with Tereek to help him find his way home.
In the making of the movie, interpreters used American Sign Language (ASL) to make it easier to interact with Tarango. The inclusion the cast and the crew reflected, showed that people with deafblindness could perform. The short film took the world by storm when it was nominated for the Oscars in 2021. The visibility it created for people with deafblindness in America and the whole world has never been reached before.
The movie was aired on the big screen for an audience with deafblindness using ASL interpreters, audio descriptions, and large open captions on the screen. They got a chance to experience watching a film for the first time with minimum challenges. This could be an inspiration for others to do the same and make it accessible for people with deafblindness to be able to watch movies.
The South Korean movie “My Lovely Angel” is yet to release. It is a story between a lonely man played by Jin Goo, and a little girl with deafblindness. The heartwarming trailer gives us a sneak into the story. With the attention this movie generates it will be used to promote legislation in South Korea to help people with deafblindness. The proposal has already been nicknamed the ‘Helen Keller Law’. This law will help improve the condition of people having deafblindness through better financial support and education.
There has been a lot of misrepresentation of people with disabilities on the big screen and many complex and unique disabilities like deafblindness rarely make it to the screen. So when they do we need to make sure they are authentic and stay true to the community they represent.